Introduction

Having little parallel in its ability to arouse an emotional response, the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) has come under increasingly intense international scrutiny from news media, feminist and human rights organizations, health practitioners, and legislators. A reclassification has taken place: the local has become a global concern, "female circumcision" has become "female genital mutilation," and a "traditional practice" has become a "human rights violation." Under the gaze of international attention, this issue has come to constitute a site for a number of emotionally charged debates around cultural relativism, international human rights, racism and Western imperialism, medicalization, sexuality, and patriarchal oppression of women, resulting in an onslaught of discussion and writing on the topic. Yet misunderstanding, confusion, and controversy over the complex dimensions of this issue have not been resolved.

The intervention of outsiders has been sharply criticized by both African and Western scholars. It has been argued that African people affected by this practice ought to be allowed to "argue this one out for themselves" (Scheper-Hughes, 1991, p. 26). Yet, it is important to bear in mind that many people in Africa are already aware that their "traditions" have come under intense scrutiny. The debate over FGC has throughout much of Africa become impossible to escape and is not likely to fade away, but only continue to increase in intensity. Knowing that African "traditions" have fallen under attack, many Africans have a growing awareness that the practice of female "circumcision" will—for better or worse—be talked about worldwide.

Just as the debate over female "circumcision" will not simply go away, the increasing pressures being put on African governments, communities, and individuals to eliminate what has come to be perceived as a "harmful tradition" are not likely to be reversed. In many African countries local initiatives opposing the practice are well established and often inextricably linked with international projects. Such intervention efforts have not, however, been received in unequivocally positive ways. A number of researchers report instances of "backlash" reactions on the ground (e.g., Hernlund, 2000, p. 243; Johnson, 2000, p. 231; Leigh, 1997), as communities respond to anti-FGM campaigns with an increase in genital cutting. In the literature, as well, opinions diverge. Fuambai Ahmadu, Sierra Leonean/American anthropologist and herself an initiate into Bundu secret society, argues that although protecting the rights of a "minority of women who oppose the practice is a legitimate and noble cause ... mounting an international campaign to coerce 80 million adult African women to give up their tradition is unjustified" (Abusharaf, 1995, p. 45). Others do not object to such campaigns per se, but stress that any action taken to prevent female "circumcision" must originate with the women and communities among whom it is practiced and be grounded in an understanding of the cultural and political contexts in which the practice is situated.

On the levels of both action and discourse, practices of FGC are currently undergoing rapid and dramatic change. This change, we argue, is irreversible. As one of us was once told in an interview about attitudes to the international campaigns against "FGM": "It is like when you mix water and sand and you get mud. You can never separate them into sand and water again." On the level of practice there remains a diminishing amount of choice for communities and individuals whose "traditions" have become irrevocably situated in the public arena. On the level of discourse, silence on the topic seems no longer to be an option and the choice that remains is between informed and non-informed discussion.

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